$100 laptop 'will boost desktop Linux'

The head of the One Laptop per Child project says he must be doing something right if he's upsetting Microsoft and Intel.

NASHVILLE, Tenn.--The One Laptop per Child project will make Linux as popular on the desktop as it is on the server today, according to Nicholas Negroponte, head of the project and co-founder of the MIT Media Laboratory.

Speaking on the final day of Red Hat's annual user summit here, Negroponte told an audience of Linux enthusiasts and technology professionals that the OLPC project will lead to mass adoption of the operating system, if the software that powers it is efficient and usable enough.

Nicholas Negroponte Nicholas Negroponte

"One of the side effects is that it will boost worldwide consumption of Linux on the desktop so incredibly that it will be on par with where it is with servers," he said. "We need your support not to make it overweight and hard to use like all the others are."

The One Laptop per Child project aims to develop a portable PC for use by children in the developing world for around $100. The price has risen since the plan was first announced to about $135 to $140, according to Negroponte.

"It is a floating price. We are a nonprofit organization. We have a target of $100 by 2008, but probably it will be $135, maybe $140. That is a start price, but what we have to do is with every release make it cheaper and cheaper--we are promising that the price will go down," Negroponte said.

Currently on leave from MIT to push the OLPC message full-time, Negroponte said that though his project has received widespread support from companies such as Red Hat--which is building the operating system--and Advanced Micro Devices, not everyone in the IT industry is on his side.

"AMD is our partner, which means Intel is pissing on me. (Microsoft Chairman) Bill Gates is not pleased either, but if I am annoying Microsoft and Intel then I figure I am doing something right," he said.

Negroponte added that the project required an extremely scaled-down operating system to enable the eventual machines to run at a decent speed, while using very little power. "About 25 percent of the cost of a (Windows) laptop is there just to support XP, which is like a person that has gotten so fat that they use most of their muscle to move their fat," he said.

The philosophy behind the OLPC project is that the best way to improve the education of children in the developing world is to give them the means to educate themselves by providing them with a PC that they see as their own.

Negroponte claimed that there are about 1 billion children in the world, with half in remote rural locations where there are no real schools, and teachers themselves have little more than a basic education. "It is very primitive. In situations like that, more teachers and schools are not the solution--it can take decades that way. A much quicker solution is to engage the children themselves in their own education," he said.

Past attempts to give children in developing countries access to PCs have failed because the children did not see the computers as their own, and as a result did not engage with them as expected. "People say we just gave 100,000 PCs to schools, and they're still sitting in their boxes. The problem is that you gave them to the wrong people--the kids don't think they are theirs, and see them as government property, or they are locked up after school."

The key to making computing projects work in education is scale, according to the OLPC boss. He claimed that the sheer number of machines the group is planning to build means that it can not only buy cheaper components, but it also has the ability to change corporate strategies. Negroponte related an anecdote about meeting the head of a PC display company who claimed that he could not build the kind of display OLPC needed--until he found out that the order would be for 100 million units.

Andrew Donoghue of ZDNet UK reported from Nashville, Tenn.

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